The meetings in the White House situation room were intellectually draining and seemingly interminable.
Several times a week, Obama administration officials of various ranks, agencies and expertise would gather to review strategic considerations, programmatic minutia and readouts of secret diplomacy.
Despite numerous fits and starts, the yearslong effort to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons development finally bore fruit on July 14, 2015, when Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a detailed 159-page agreement endorsed less than a week later by the United Nations Security Council.
By the following January, the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran had fulfilled its initial obligations under the deal and that increased monitoring of Iranian nuclear-related sites was underway, triggering a relief of some U.S., EU and U.N. sanctions.
But despite the significance of the diplomatic breakthrough, criticism of the JCPOA remained strong among many Democrats and Republicans in Congress when Barack Obama turned over the reins to Donald Trump in January 2017.
Yes, much opposition was rooted in an eclectic mix of rigid ideological fervor, partisan politics and substantive ignorance of the agreement, but there also were honest concerns that the deal was neither sufficiently comprehensive nor airtight in light of the financial benefits Iran would accrue.
“There is no doubt Iran will violate the agreement,” was a frequent refrain of Congressional detractors, especially nearsighted jingoists convinced that so-called Iranian “moderates” were just Persian wolves masquerading as politically opportunistic sheep.
Ironically, and quite tragically, it was the United States that violated the agreement, not Iran.
Trump, who despised anything bearing Obama’s fingerprints, never took the time to understand the terms of the agreement nor the opportunities to build upon it.
Rather than walking away from the deal, as he did in May 2018, Trump could have negotiated with Tehran to strengthen and lengthen its terms, reduce the quantity and quality of its missile arsenal, and condition further sanctions relief on an end to Iran’s malign activities in the region.
Just like his missteps on so many other fronts, Trump failed to realize and capitalize on the art of the JCPOA deal.
President Joe Biden and his advisers are rightly concentrating on pressing domestic challenges — COVID-19, the economy, social injustice, systemic racism, border security and immigration — but they also must deal with the dangerous and dynamic world stage, upon which other nations continue to strut, fret and exploit.
Following America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran has been steadily violating agreed-on limits on its heavy water and enriched uranium stockpiles as well as on allowable enrichment activity.
And if Iran sharply increases its nuclear-related activities in the coming months in the continued absence of sanctions relief, as called for in a law passed by Iran’s Guardian Council last December, Tehran will reduce to a matter of months the time needed to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.
Such shortening of a “breakout” timeline has long been considered a potential tripwire for military action against Iran by Israel, the United States or both.
The Biden administration wants to resuscitate the nuclear deal, but there is now a “you go first” diplomatic impasse, with Iran insisting that sanctions be lifted immediately while the United States insists it will do so only when Iran is back in full compliance.
Iran believes it has the moral high ground, as it was Washington that reneged on its commitments and flouted a U.N. Security Council resolution.
At the same time, the Biden administration would be foolish to allow Tehran to reap the JCPOA’s financial benefits while Iran continues to carry our prohibited nuclear weapons-related activities.
This is the type of diplomatic conundrum that is tailor-made for rigorous back-channel discussions, including through foreign intermediaries.
Ideally, an arrangement would be worked out whereby Washington and Tehran would each agree to take a series of sequenced steps to demonstrate good faith in returning to the terms of the nuclear deal without appearing to capitulate to the other side.
For example, the Biden administration could agree, in the interest of aviation safety, to allow the sale to Iran of some desperately needed aircraft parts.
Other steps designed to help the Iranian people, not the regime, could be taken in the health, education and social welfare sectors.
In exchange, Iran could incrementally scale back its uranium enrichment activities — verifiable by the IAEA — signaling a reversal of the dangerous upward trend of the past two years.
A protracted standoff over the modalities of how to restart the terms of the JCPOA will be costly to U.S. interests beyond the alarming specter of Iran’s potential development of a nuclear warhead.
Inside Iran, political moderates will be hard-pressed in the absence of sanctions relief to counter claims that perfidy is an inherent trait of all American officials, a certain theme of hard-liners in the run-up to Iran’s presidential election in June.
Outsiders also are seizing opportunities to advance their interests at our expense, as evidenced by China’s agreement in late March to invest $400 billion in Iran over 25 years in exchange for a reliable supply of discounted oil to fuel Beijing’s ever-expanding economy.
Biden has gathered around him some of the most experienced and competent national security professionals this country has to offer.
While they understand the limits to America’s ability to shape the course of events around the globe, they also know the tremendous influence that the United States is able to wield when it is determined to do so.
For the sake of peace and stability in the Middle East, U.S. national security interests worldwide and the opportunity to explore ways to reverse the course of four decades of animus between Washington and Tehran, we should all fervently hope that the Biden team is making every effort to bring the JCPOA back to life.
John Brennan was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2013 to 2017.